Half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population flees as the separatist government says it will dissolve

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The separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh announced on Thursday that it will dissolve itself and the unrecognized republic will cease to exist by the end of the year, following a swift military offensive by Azerbaijan that reclaimed full control over the disputed region.

Last week, Azerbaijan launched another offensive that forced the Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh to lay down their weapons and agree to withdraw from the region by January 1, 2024. In exchange, Azerbaijan promised to allow the free movement of the local population and restore supplies after a 10-month blockade.

The separatist president of Nagorno-Karabakh, Samvel Shakhramanyan, signed a decree to dissolve his government and end the existence of the unrecognized republic by the same deadline. The decree cited an agreement reached with Azerbaijan and mediated by Russian peacekeepers, who have been deployed in the region since the 2020 war.

The announcement triggered a massive humanitarian crisis, as more than half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population — over 65,000 people — fled to neighboring Armenia, fearing reprisals from the Azerbaijani authorities. Many left behind their homes and belongings, and some even set fire to their houses before departing.

The only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia was jammed with cars and buses carrying refugees. On Monday night, a fuel reservoir exploded at a gas station where people were lining up for gas, killing at least 68 people and injuring nearly 300 more. More than 100 people are still missing after the blast.

The exodus has left Nagorno-Karabakh largely deserted, with only a few thousand residents remaining. Some have expressed hope that they will be able to return one day, while others have accepted that they have lost their homeland forever.

Azerbaijan has vowed to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and rebuild the war-torn region. It has also invited international organizations and countries to participate in the reconstruction process and monitor the situation on the ground.

However, many observers have raised concerns about the fate of the cultural and religious heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh, which dates back centuries and includes ancient churches, monasteries, and monuments. Some sites have already been damaged or destroyed during the fighting, while others may face alteration or erasure under Azerbaijani rule.

The dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh marks the end of a long and bloody struggle for self-determination that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more. It also poses new challenges for the stability and security of the South Caucasus region, where geopolitical interests and historical grievances often collide.

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